21 Mar Kirstie Rowbotham in Bordeaux
We moved to France to make wine, and what better place than in the Bordeaux wine region! Wine has always been a passion in our family, in 2003 my husband and I took a years sabbatical from work and moved to the Lot, in the southwest of France to work on a vineyard. Of course we fell in love with the work and the French way of life. After returning to the UK we pooled resources with my parents and started looking for a property. It would be a permanent home, wine business and B&B for us, a holiday home for my parents and have plenty of space for family and friends to visit.
After 9 months of searching we found Chollet and moved in in August 2006. The previous owners of Chollet had never made wine on the property, they farmed the vines and then sold the grapes, so as well as a lot of work in renovating the house we also had a chai (winery) to renovate. In the vineyard the vines had been farmed to produce maximum yields with little regard to quality. Since 2006 we have changed that dramatically, we are certified organic and keep yields low to produce the best quality and ripeness of grapes possible. We made our first wine in 2007 and are pleased to say that each vintage since has won awards from the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards. Our B&B apartment has been up and running since 2012 and does good business with excellent feedback from our guests.
Integration is difficult in the early stages and if your French isn’t good it’s even harder. Even though it can be deeply uncomfortable you simply have to throw yourself in at the deep end and try – you will be respected for it and find that you fit in, in no time at all. Running a business and having children meant that we simply had to get on with it from day one.
We have been very lucky with our neighbours, also wine makers, in our first year they helped us out of more than one tight spot (a memory of getting the tractor stuck in the mud and having to be pulled out comes to mind and so does them sorting the electrics on our destemming machine mid-harvest!) without having any thought in mind but to be neighbourly. We have since become close friends and their son has accompanied us back to England to help with his English (The Harry Potter Studio was a big hit!)
One of the reasons we moved to France was for the children. Our eldest was 9 months when we moved, and our 2nd was born here in France. They are now 11 and 9. There were 2 main reasons for our relocation – the space and the education. We had little faith in the state schools in the UK and had seen the astronomical fees being paid in the private sector and wanted something different.
As babies both of our children went to a French nou nou (Nanny) so by the time they went to school they could already speak French. They started out in the village school and were happy there, but at age 10/11 it feeds into a big college (secondary school) in our local town, which didn’t have a good reputation. Therefore we moved them out of the village school at age 6 & 8 to a local semi-private Catholic school which has a college attached, meaning they can stay in the same school until they are 16. There’s no doubt that the standards are higher than at the village school but they settled in and our eldest has just started at the college and is getting on well. There’s no doubt that the French system is highly academic, it pushes hard on French and Maths, they do long days (but have long holidays) and there is a lot of homework.
My husband and I are both English and we always speak English at home. When the boys started at school we asked the headmistress if we should be speaking French to them at home, her advice was ‘no’ as we were far from fluent at the time, keep it separate – home English and school French.
They are now fully bilingual and speak French and English with no accent. If anything they are probably more French than English. I do have a concern that as they get older their English will suffer, but there is a school nearby which offers English GCSE so much to their disgust this is something that we will pursue – to be fully bilingual I believe they need to read and write both languages fully. At the moment we encourage them to read English books at home, and of course there is always English TV which keeps their vocab level up.
For others thinking of relocating I have 3 bits of advice:
1. Visit and spend time in your chosen location in the winter, you will often see a very different France, depending on where you are, the winters can be cold, wet and long with very little to do.
2. Learn the language, if you want to integrate it’s a necessity, or else you can be lonely and isolated
3. If you are thinking about setting up a business, plan it through to the nth degree – do not assume that the skills you have in the UK are transferable to France.